The Teaching of the 12

The Teaching of the 12: Believing and Practicing the Primitive Christianity of the Ancient Didache Community
By Tony Jones
Brewster, MA: Paraclete Press, 2009
Review by Carl McColman

The Didache is one of the most ancient of Christian documents. Its name is related to the English word “didactic,” which gives a clue to its content: it is a teaching manual, offering spiritual and moral guidance to new converts to the community of faith. It’s not very long (in this book, the complete text of the Didache covers only sixteen pages) and it may very well have been several older documents patched together. It was an also-ran for inclusion in the New Testament, which means that, while the early church did not consider it sufficiently inspired to be regarded as sacred scripture, it nevertheless was respected enough to be considered. For centuries it was effectively lost, until a 1000-year-old copy of the manuscript was found in a convent library in Istanbul in 1873. Tony Jones calls the Didache “the most important book you’ve never heard of” and in The Teaching of the 12 he sets out not so much to provide a scholarly or academic introduction to this ancient writing, but rather to suggest that the Didache has immediate, practical application for Christians (both individually and within faith communities) seeking a simple, unadorned, down-to-earth vision of what it means to be a Christian — or a Christian church — in our time.

The idea of returning to the source holds powerful attraction for many Christians. Many Protestant and evangelical movements over the last five hundred years have been fueled by a desire to re-discover (or re-create) the authentic church as depicted in the New Testament (that is to say, before the accretions of history, empire, and worldly compromise slowly transformed the community of faith into the church institutional). Read the writings of Frank Viola (such as his flawed, but emblematic Pagan Christianity?) to see how this hunger for the primitive church continues to drive many seekers today. Tony Jones presents the Didache almost as a house church manifesto, interspersing his own commentary on the text with the ruminations of “Trucker Frank,” who is a member of a small faith community in Missouri called the Cymbrogi (Welsh for “Companions of the Heart”) that uses the Didache to guide their ongoing faith formation.

Because of this hunger for the primitive, which is in itself simply another point of view, some of Jones’ conclusions leave me unpersuaded: for example, his insistence that the Didache presents a pre-episcopal understanding of church governance. But overall, the enthusiasm and excitement he conveys in his appreciation for the Didache is rather infectious. Again and again, he enthuses that this ancient document calls us not to a set of propositional beliefs, but rather to Christianity as a way of life. I realize that, for Jones and the Cymbrogi and perhaps many others, the Didache has had an effect similar to what the Holy Rule of St. Benedict has had in my own faith journey: it has brought the experience of being a Christian down to earth, made it personal, and challenged the reader to actually live the gospel.

And those are good things indeed.

So, I’m not sure that the Didache is going to revolutionize the church, any more than the Rule or so many other writings of deep faith and devotion have. But I think it’s worth exploring. One aspect of Jones’ commentary that I particularly enjoyed is his explication of just how pragmatic this document is: in its discussion of Baptism, for example, the Didache says that baptisms should be performed “in flowing water.” But it goes on to say: “But if you have no running water, baptize in other water… If you have very little, pour water three times on the head…” Compare this common-sense approach to the kinds of insistence we have seen over the centuries from the various denominations that only one particular way of baptizing is valid. In fact, Jones paraphrases this entire teaching as “here’s the ideal way of baptizing, but if you can’t live up to the ideal, then do the best you can.” Ah, this is dangerous stuff: at what point does “do the best you can” slide into the ironic “whatever!” that adolescents say to annoy their parents — and that epitomizes the pervasive and center-less relativism of our age? Still, it’s a danger that I think we can all live with, for if we have no wriggle room in how we conduct our lives as Christians, contention and conflict will surely ensue (as the sad history of the church in its many divisions has shown). So perhaps the Didache does have something unique to say: strive to be perfect (Matthew 5:48), but also recognize that sometimes perfection just doesn’t happen. And in those circumstances… well, do the best we can.

So the Didache didn’t make me want to run off and join a house church, but I’ve got my Lay Cistercian community, which in many ways already does function like a house church. But for the many Christians who do not enjoy such an intimate, small-group experience of faith — and who are looking for that undefinable something-which-is-missing — this text, and Jones’ accessible commentary on it, just might illuminate the way.

Busting the "Goody Two Shoes" Stereotype of Saints
Why Trappists Make Great Spiritual Guides
Preliminary Practices for Christian Contemplatives
Pentecost and Ecstasy
About Carl McColman

Author of Befriending Silence, The Big Book of Christian Mysticism, Answering the Contemplative Call, and other books. Retreat leader. Speaker. Professed Lay Cistercian.

  • noel

    well since religion and /or spirituality involves more that one …………………and if one lacks the feeling of community………..are you saying this will offer a primer?
    thanks carl

  • Joe Rawls

    The thing about “getting back to the sources” is that we unavoidably view “the sources” through two millenia of Christian experience, not to mention our own life experience. So we’ll always view them through various filters. Looking for the one “right” way to be church is a dead-end.

  • Regina

    Thanks for the review! I appreciate your comment about ‘doing the best you can’ possibly being a slippery slope… yet I think that if we approach such things with integrity, that is, a clear desire to do our best for God, to see that God is served in our actions, doing our best is really OK. It’s an interesting discussion, this discernment of what is ‘important’ in various contexts. When you write about the various approaches to Baptism, for example, I think that the discussion would be very different in a even one geographic area. An area could be drought-parched one month, and flooded in another, for example. The understanding of and value of ‘flowing water’ is different from the time of the Didache to now, and indeed ‘now’ around our world. Such good stuff to think about. Thanks again.